This blog originates on the banks of the Atchafalaya River, in Louisiana. It proposes to share the things that happen on and by the river as the seasons progress. As the river changes from quiet, warm, slow flow to rises of eighteen feet or more, there are changes in the lives of the birds, fish, amphibians and reptiles that use the river. And the mood of the river changes with the seasons. I propose to note and comment on these things.

My Photo
Location: Butte La Rose, Louisiana, United States

I transitioned a few years ago from a career as a water-pollution control biologist. I want to do this blog to stay in touch with a world outside my everyday surroundings, whatever they may be. I like open-minded company and the discussion of ideas. Photo by Brad Moon.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Five Candles

Just a whim, this. A couple days ago I took pictures of water hyacinth flowers for my "Life at Butte La Rose" catalogue and was surprised to find candles burning in every flower. Had never noticed them before. How many times (hundreds) had I looked at these flowers? Apparently not enough times to see them.

The river is at 7.5 on the Butte La Rose gauge. It will be at about 2.8 feet in a week. That is a FAST drop. The Mississippi and Ohio are emptying out to the low end of the cycle.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Friday, August 14, 2009

Basin Bedding

When bedding was needed, what were the materials available to people in houseboats in the first half of the 1900s and before? The materials were feathers, corn shucks, moss and the fabrics to enclose these things.

Feathers were most often derived from wild ducks and geese, particularly the down and other soft feathers. Chickens were also used when available. Pillows were made of feathers and so were thin mattresses that were often placed on top of other, loftier, materials. Sheets were made out of yellow cotton, as described by Lena Mae Couvillier and her sister-in-law Margaret Neal. Pillow cases were also made with flour sacks, feed sacks or yellow cotton (unbleached muslin). The latter came on rolls or flat bolts.

JD: So, uh, flour sacks and cow feed sacks were mostly…and they had patterns on em, you said. Where would yall get the thread and needles and everything to sew with?

MN. We’d get em off those fishboats. Order em. They had all kinds, they had to be all kinds. They all in a pack, all five.

JD: How about sheets for the beds?

LC: You make em. Yellow cotton.

MN: You buy that by the yard, make your sheets with.

LC: Sheets and pillow cases.

JD: And…and the fishboat would have that too?

MN: You’d order it. They’d bring it to you.

In addition to sheets, quilts would be made using traditional quilting techniques and items from the fishboats. The other material needed for making the mattresses was the cloth that enclosed whatever the mattress was made of. This cloth was called ticking.

Corn shucks were one of the two materials that were routinely made into mattresses. The shucks were stuffed into mattress-sized bags. These were common enough, but were not the preferred mattresses. The primary objection to them seems to be that they were very loud when the person resting on them moved in any way. Just turning on them was enough to wake people up, even without the more rhythmic sounds that one might imagine.

“Make a lot of noise, it rattle a lot, when you roll…move on it? It rattled, you know” [Edward Couvillier; 1995]

By far the most often mentioned material for mattresses is dried, black moss. This is the same moss that had income potential when gathered alive (“green moss”) from trees in the swamp and processed to remove the soft, living outer coat, leaving only the very durable non-living inner core of the plant. This core was dark brown to black. While most of the moss was sold, some was retained for use in building mattresses to sleep on. Most of the time it was the women who created these essential items for the family.

To make the moss mattresses, the ticking was spread on the floor and the processed black moss was spread out to a thickness of about 24 inches on one-half of it. The ticking was then folded over “taco fashion” and the seams all around the three open sides were sewn together. A long needle, ten inches or so, was then taken and threaded through the bag of moss at intervals of about 12 inches, creating a network of bindings that tended to keep the enclosed moss from shifting inside the bag. If done expertly, the finished mattress was rectangular, about a foot thick, with sides that almost created 90-degree angles with the top and bottom. Achieving such a regular, well-defined shape was a matter of pride.

Apparently, after sleeping on a moss mattress for a while the moss would compress into clumps and, to remain comfortable to sleep on, these clumps had to be pulled apart and restored to the the springiness they originally had. In a large family, some women would require that every two weeks one of the family’s mattresses would be unsewn, washed, and the clumps pulled apart. Much of this work was done by the children, reluctantly. As they were being picked apart and fluffed up, the clumps were not to be treated so roughly that the individual moss fibers would be broken, but only gently pulled apart. In all the thirty-something people interviewed for this topic, not one remembered the de-clumping (“picking”) procedure with fondness.

Lena Mae’s brother Milton, who grew up to be one of the best fishermen at Myette Point, was not good at doing this chore, resorting to hiding the evidence when he did it inexpertly.

EC: Yeah. You didn’t break it, now, you didn’t want to break it loose, you just fluff it up, you know?

LC: [.. . .] Not Milton, he break it up and go throw it back…Go throw it back of a tree somewhere, where Momma and them couldn’t find it.

JD: Well, was that one of the harder parts of living on a houseboat, was keeping the mattress in good shape?

Lena Mae’s outlook on having to do unpleasant jobs is interesting.

LC: Aw, it wasn’t hard, it wasn’t really hard. It was just…like you do now, you know, you can make it what you want.

People say that this type of bedding was comfortable to recline on, but sleeping on it was easier in the winter than in the summer. Due to the nature of the material, and depending on whether the mattress was firmly stuffed or more soft, anyone lying on it could sink into the mattress and become almost enclosed by it. This was very warm in the winter, even when there was ice in the house in the mornings, and correspondingly uncomfortably hot in the summer.

The mattresses were either placed on the floor or used on top of an iron bed frame with a set of springs on it. Margaret Couvillier Neal and her husband Floyd Mayon had a small two-room houseboat (one kitchen, one everything else) and a big family to put to sleep at night. She talks with humor about this with sister-in-law Lena Mae Couvillier.

MN: I just had three beds, one room, with three beds in it. You couldn’t pass, hardly, between the beds. [laughs] I had six girls and uh, five boys.

JD: Well, with just two mattresses, could you split em up boys and girls?

MN: Yeah. It was rough, but, we made it. The good Lord was with us.

Neg Sauce has good memories of what life was like in the houseboats. After sleeping on the moss mattresses, he remembers what it was like to get up in the morning.

“The first thing that I start doing…you go to the edge of the camp and you wash your face with that nice cool water in the bayou. [. . .]…catch it with your hands, boy...wash your face with it and make you feel fresh [laughs]. Yeah, it was nice. I still would like to do that [laughs], catch you water out of the side…And then you get up and drink you coffee like we always do now.” [Neg Sauce; 1996]

Perhaps that ability to get up in the morning and feel good about the day and yourself was part of the reason these folks could keep going day after day, season after season, adapting to a life that had many challenges. A good night’s sleep was probably one of the reasons those challenges could be met successfully.

The river is at 7.4 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, high for this time of year. But the bottom is going to fall out this week coming. In five days the water is predicted to fall 3.5 feet. That is a fast drop at any time. Anyone with things floating along the bank of the river better pay attention or their things will be stuck until next year, probably.

Rise and Shine, Jim

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Basin Law and Order

How would it work if we just decided one day to suspend the 911 service, including the calls to the fire department, the police or sheriff’s department? How would it be if our rights, or life, or property was being threatened and there was no institutional authority to call? It is what happened to the people who lived in the Atchafalaya Basin in the 1800s and early 1900s. It is interesting to wonder if they knew that they were giving up access to law enforcement when they decided to move farther and farther back into the Basin in pursuit of the swamp’s resources. Indeed, whether they cared? Today this would be one of the first issues we might consider, but oddly, it did not seem to deter them from voluntarily choosing isolation. Perhaps it is a case of not missing what you never had? When you ask the interview questions about law enforcement, people shrug their shoulders and respond with “there wasn’t any”. In pursuit of more detail you can push on with questions about sheriffs or their deputies, and the answer is the same. There just wasn’t any.

However, if you lived on the edges of the Basin instead of in the interior, things could be different with respect to the legal attention paid to situations. The landing at the foot of the Attakapas Canal on Lake Verret was close enough to Napoleonville (eight miles by road) to receive direction from the Assumption Parish sheriff’s department. One of the Myette Point ancestors was known to cause trouble when he came to town, and the sheriff chose to address the potential problem by banning the individual from using the landing at all. This would have been about 1850.

“They used to do all their business at Attakapas Landing. Yeah, that’s it. And he’s the one I was telling you that…uh, that grandpa Sead’s daddy, he was so…such a bad character, that the sheriff wouldn’t even let him land at Attakapas Landing anymore.” [EJ Daigle, 1995]

But even in the interior of the Basin, in some rare instances, particularly those involving murder, cases came to the attention of federal authorities. Why some criminal acts were addressed this vigorously and others not, is not known. This particular time, a man accused of murder was traced by federal marshals to Hog Island, about ten miles south of Bayou Chene. They showed up looking for him and a fishboat came in and docked about the same time. The fishboat operator saw what was happening and told the marshals that he needed to leave and continue on in his boat. Knowing the close association between the fishermen and the fishboat operators, the marshal suspected the murderer would get help from the fishboat. The names are masked in the following account by Edward Couvillier, who would have been a teenager at the time and living on Hog Island.

EC: I remember old [. . .] He killed a man. And he came down there between Hog Island and Keelboat. Marshal came down there to look for him, and they got everybody in one house, made everybody stay together, didn’t let nobody leave. [. . .] pulled up, [. . .] on his fishboat, and he was gonna leave and that marshal told him “No, you got to stay here” he says. He was afraid he would go pick him up and take him, you see. That’s what he didn’t want. “No” he say, “I’m gone”. He pulled out that big old gun, he put it in the back of his head, he say “You gone stay”.

JD: When was that Edward?

EC: Aw, that was in the ‘40s. Way back in the ‘40s. At Keelboat [Pass] and Hog Island. Got on that island between Keelboat and Hog Island. And they finally caught him, but it took about three or four days with bloodhounds. They got back in there with bloodhounds, got him out.

JD: And what…what was it that had happened? He had…

EC: He had killed a man, [. . .]

JD: And did he get taken off to jail, and everything?

EC: Oh yeah, they hauled him off.

Apparently insults were dealt with by direct confrontation. Fist fighting was the usual method of confrontation between men, with the parties afterward refraining from communication with the other family for a period of time. Most of the time affronts would be forgotten in a year or less, and communication would resume. Serious disagreements, such as the accusation of fish theft, might require longer than a year to subside. As a young man, Myon Bailey was involved in the question of fish theft and fought with his accuser, falling overboard and causing his wife to miscarry their first child. Five years later the parties reconciled their differences and became good friends, but it took that long.

“And he come and attack on me at my camp. When he hit me he knocked me overboard. When I got outta there we got hooked up [tangled fighting]. And Blaise come there and separate us, and then Blaise went to whip Alvin’s ass. It was a big coulou. We stayed about five years I guess. Caused her to lose her first baby. [Myon Bailey, 1995]

Generally, theft seems to have had a kind of sliding scale of degree vs. reaction. It was understood by just about everybody that there was a line between what the victim could be expected to shrug off with a verbal exchange and what required a direct physical response. The known temper and physical capability of a potential victim might have had an influence on what a thief planned to do.

According to interviews, the theft of timber was a common thing in the first half of the 1900s. There was so much timber, and the territory was so big, and the patrolling of it so sparse, that many people routinely made part of their living by cutting cypress and tupelo and hiding it for later removal to a sawmill. And you had to hide the trees you cut so that other people looking to do the same thing you were doing didn’t come along and steal the logs you had just “acquired”. Myon’s daughter, Lena Mae Couvillier, says “They had to, ‘cause they’d steal em. That’s why they’d hide em. “

Firearms for legal purposes were a common tool in the Basin. They were used for hunting game so much that no one thought anything of seeing people carrying rifles or shotguns. So it was that if a disagreement over something occurred there may have been a gun to settle it. It was this availability that could be dangerous at times. There are several well-known instances of arguments being settled by the death by gunshot of one of the people involved. Most of these cases, however not all, were the end result of longstanding disagreements not of issues that just flared up suddenly.

One such situation is well documented, and it occurred in Iberia Parish. It was near the place then called Grand Bayou. This is the waterway on the west side of the Basin that fed Lake Fausse Point from the Atchafalaya River system prior to the levee blocking Grand Bayou. There was a community there for a while. The story goes like this. One man was in the small store getting supplies and he looked through the front door and saw someone else about to enter the store. The first man told the store owner that he didn’t want to talk to the incoming second man and left the store. He walked to his pirogue and got in and began to paddle away down the bayou along the bank. The second man came up to the bank and began to walk along the bank harassing the first man in the pirogue. After a short time, the man in the pirogue lifted a shotgun loaded with buckshot and fired at the man on the bank, hitting him in the body with several of the pellets. As the man fell, he told a friend “He’s killed me”. And he died. The sheriff of Iberia Parish arrested the first man and took him to jail in New Iberia. A hearing was held during which an attempt was made to determine if self defense was involved. Eyewitnesses testified that the man on the bank was not threatening the man in the pirogue except verbally. It was shown he had no weapon but a very small pocketknife. No self defense was justified. However, the victim’s records were reviewed and it was found that there had been complaints filed against him for assault with a weapon, and other complaints involving intimidation, etc. The hearing officer ruled that the homicide had been justifiable based on the dead man’s antisocial character. End of case. Being that formal complaints had previously been filed, the incident must have been within reach of the New Iberia system of law. If this had happened farther out in the Basin it is doubtful if complaint records would have existed.

Running someone else’s fishing lines almost always brings about a potentially violent reaction from the wronged party. The most often mentioned weapon is the paddle kept in the boat. Ida Daigle (born in 1918) caught a man stealing fish from her lines once. She says.

“[. . .] He had all my fish in his boat. And I went right up to him, too. I put my paddle, though, by me. He’d a made a pass at me I’d’a hit him with my paddle. And uh, I went right up to him. [. . .] “I did good!” he say. I say “Where’s your lines?” “Oh, here and there”. I say “You know darn well you lyin” I say “You ain’t got a line in yuh.” I say “Them fish is mine” I say “Throw em in my boat”. [. . .] I say “I’m gone hit you in the…I’m gone hit you with this paddle”. And I had…Russell had made me a big, heavy paddle.
And I say “I’m goin bait my line and tomorrow” I say “ I’m gone be here earlier than what you is” and I say “Look” I say “if I see you on a line” I say “you gone stay there” But I didn’t have no gun with me [means she was bluffing]. [laughs]. I never brought no gun with me. But he got scared. The next day I went and filled up my wellbox. It was my fish.” [Ida Daigle, 1996]

Infidelity was as frequent as with any other group of individuals. Sometimes it happened. The unwritten law was that if a couple was discovered while so engaged, the consequences were up to the wronged man. If he chose, he could shoot the other man, and the woman too for that matter, and no law would punish him. Sometimes the offended person just didn’t think the issue was worth the trouble and just walked away, but sometimes not.

We wonder at the flexibility of what we think of as the system of crime and punishment in the Basin in the first half of the 1900s. But it is a difficult assessment to make. From our position in a much more monitored and regulated society, it is unrealistic to assess someone else’s reactions that took place in a time and place unfamiliar to us. People who lived 150 years ago in the Atchafalaya Basin lived by the codes they inherited from previous generations. If these progenitors lived in conditions far removed from organized law enforcement, they learned to function within a set of rules that had proven through time to work well enough to let people get on with life. Live and let live seems to be what evolved as a guide for most people. If this system at least allowed individuals to live their lives without the constant fear of threat to life or property, it seems to have been enough.

The river is playing tricks. It went down to five feet last week and I dug out the lower-level platforms that lead to the crib and dock when they are far away from the bank in low water. Now the river is coming back up to at least seven feet and maybe more due to rain in Ohio. Oh well. It ain’t boring.

The black and white picture is from the collection of Darlene Soule'.

The river is at 6.0 feet on the Butte La Rose gauge, rising to 7.8 feet by next Friday. The Ohio and Mississippi are really rising up above. We could get some serious mid-summer water this year, not flooding, but higher than usual anyway.

Rise and Shine, Jim